Man at His Best

Bjorn Shen: What I've Learned

Chef and owner of Artichoke and Bird Bird, Bjorn Shen, on F&B in Singapore, sitting by a river for hours, and being friendzoned.

BY Interview by Lestari Hairul | Jul 18, 2016 | Food & Drink

Ronald Leong

It should just be “Shit Bjorn says,” because the Time Out column is called “Bjorn Says”.

I’m a sucker for punishment. Suckers for punishment always end up in this industry.

I grew up always just messing around in the kitchen, getting in my mum’s way. She never thought that I would eventually pursue this, but I did. I always liked to cook back then, to impress girls.

Absolute failure. [The girls] just friendzone me. I’m like the ultimate friendzone guy.

One day, my friends and I decided to pool our money to buy ingredients for a faux fancy house party. Then one of them said, “Hey, Bjorn. Why don’t you just become a chef?” It just blew my mind that you could do that, and I’ve been doing just that ever since.

If I could do it all over again, I would have just been a banker and got paid more. The guy who asked me that is a neurosurgeon now and making five times the amount of money that I am.

I enjoy it. Just the other day, someone asked me, “What’s your life’s dream?” I thought about it and told him that I’m already living my dream. Then he asked me, “What else do you want to do?” I’m like I really don’t know. I’ve already done more than I thought I ever would.

I was never good at my studies. I was always at the bottom of my class. Okay lah; I was in some good classes, but I was never the best student in class. So I’ve done a lot better than I thought I’d ever do.

When you put people in crappy situations, tough bonds form. I have really tight bonds with some of the people who I work with because of the shared hardships of work, late nights, and cuts and burns.

Whatever I don’t like about the industry is outweighed by what I do like about it. Of course, there are things that I wish could be better, but I don’t think that one person can change the whole industry, not so soon at least.

But the one thing that I wish I could improve is cost structures. I wish everyone could be paid two to three, even 10 times more. The problem is this can’t happen due to the economics of the situation. As it is, labour costs already make up, for me, a larger percentage than anything else in my company. I wish I could shower everyone with my unicorn love, I really do, but unfortunately, I can’t. It just pains me because I know the hard, tedious work that everyone does.

I regret all the missed opportunities of not being able to maintain friendships and relationships. I think that’s one of the biggest downsides of the industry. I have godchildren who I hardly see. One of my best friends had a daughter and I met her for the first time when she was two years old.

Some people who work office hours complain when they have to do overtime every day until 8:00PM. Yeah, but you still get to go out for dinner every day, no matter how late. We go out for dinner once a week, and if you’re already spending it with your family, what happens to your friends? That’s the problem.

At Artichoke, everyone tries to get a rotational day off during the week as a bonus if possible. That’s something that we introduced so everyone can stay married, for example. The rate of failed relationships in this industry is very high. We are trying to change the game by affording whatever flexibility we can. But my guys also understand that our business needs to be stable first before we can afford to give these things.

The reality of being an F&B owner is you will break, and it will happen at least three to four times a year. When it does, it’s like an out-of-body experience; only it’s real. You suffer an emotional breakdown. You stop eating. You stop sleeping. You have morbid nightmares—I had that earlier this week.

I need to rescue myself so that I can continue to be on board with the guys. Right now, I want to go to the Sahara desert or something and chill out for a week. That’s the kind of investment that you need to make in yourself. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go away, and so I just have to live through this.

When I do manage to get away, I always return to my old stomping grounds in Brisbane, Australia. And it won’t be as a tourist. I’ll rent somewhere in the suburbs where I’ll just go around to the local supermarket and act like I live there. Just to untie my mind, I’ll sit by the river for three hours, and then do stupid emo things, such as take long drives and sing damn loudly with the windows down. You need to do stupid shit like that to get yourself back on track. If not, you will just kill yourself. It’s very tough.

Every time you break, you get a new tattoo. I have three.

Mental instability, nervous breakdowns, depression and substance abuse are big problems in the industry. Dealing with all manner of issues and having to put on a smile in front of customers causes emotional labour. This is when you’re not having a good day, but must pretend that you are because you work in the service line. You can’t just retreat to your cubicle and sulk. Emotional labour is something that we all have to bear.

We need to Zen out sometimes, and different people have different ways of Zen-ning out. I play Counter-Strike at night against robots. That’s the saddest thing about my life. Whenever I do that, I feel extremely depressed. But I have to do it because that’s the only way to get my mind off stuff.

I’m tired of many things. When you’re constantly at breaking point, everything is tiring.

When you have an F&B business, the hardest thing is the people, and finding ways to manage them and keep everyone happy. Since everyone has a different way of being, everyone requires a different style of management. You can try and manage everyone with one single brushstroke, but that’s not going to work. The hardest part is having 10 people who care about your business, who love you and you love them back, but they don’t get along with each other. That’s the worse part.

The most heart-breaking part is seeing people leave when you know they actually care. But the reason why they leave is because they can’t get along with each other.

If no one wants their kids to work in this industry, kids won’t grow up wanting to work in this industry. Think about parents who point out someone working in a hawker stall and say, “If you don’t study hard, you will end up like this.” Or if we are used to walking into a restaurant and being mean to the staff, which one of us would want our kids to grow up and work in a restaurant, when we know how abusive we are or entitled we feel as customers? Society needs to change before more people will want to work in F&B.

The people who work in F&B now are all troopers. They’re all heroes because they know the reality of the situation yet still want to do it. And most of these guys have university degrees. And even if they did drop out of school at 12, they still chose to enter the industry despite the stigma. Working against the odds of everything that you know you will be subjected to means that you’re a commando. Until society starts to appreciate them, there will always be a shortage. These people are a dime a dozen.

What [the Government] has done is they’ve painted this whole thing with one big brushstroke, specifically the F&B industry. An exception must be made for certain industries that locals simply don’t want to join. There are so many people from overseas who would love the opportunity to come to Singapore and make a better life for their families and all that. But you keep saying that you want me to look for locals. And I’ve already tried offering SGD4,000.

It’s not about the money that you make. It’s not about how great of a chef you are, or how fierce you are in the kitchen. It’s about how people will talk about you when you’re dead. If you were to die tomorrow, how many people would attend your funeral? What would they say about you? What would they remember you for? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m still working on them.

I hope that when I die, people will remember me for the good things. And I hope that they will remember me for my compassion, understanding, empathy and patience, and for just being a good dude. I don’t want people to remember me as a chef. I want people to remember me for helping in their lives.

And that’s what I do in my company now; I’m trying to help everyone in their lives.

From: Esquire Singapore's The Big Food & Drinks Book.